By Makena Mezistrano
My favorite Ladino refran, or proverb, offers a reminder that’s particularly apt for the past year: El mundo se manea ma no kaye — “the world shakes, but does not fall.” It has been the refrain in my head throughout the changes we’ve all experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, reminding me that the hardest challenges require creative solutions, and to remain open to opportunities even when the possibilities seem limited.
When spare rooms in our homes became offices and Zoom calls replaced lunch meetings or walks through the quad, our Ladino novels, newspapers, biblical commentaries, and many other books and artifacts on the University of Washington campus felt far away. In the new pandemic era we turned to digitized pages to recall the stacks of cultural heritage preserved in our offices. This “virtual bookshelf,” constituting over 140,000 images of published Ladino material, afforded us the unforeseen opportunity to make important strides in the development of the Sephardic Studies Digital Collection during this challenging year.
While the University of Washington’s shift to remote operations greatly impacted all departments, it had significant implications for the UW Libraries. Catalogers could no longer spend time in the physical stacks organizing and developing collections, and most archival management was halted. The focus turned toward already digitized collections; thankfully, due largely in part to the work of Ty Alhadeff, the program’s former research coordinator, our repository of 480 Ladino books was scanned and awaiting the expertise and assistance of our university librarians.
“The fact that these books were already digitized was quite lucky,” said Ben Riesenberg, a Metadata Librarian in the Cataloging and Metadata Services unit of the UW Libraries, who has taken the lead in supporting the Sephardic Studies Digital Collection. “Much of my work already took place online prior to work-from-home, but the ability to focus on the digital collections metadata design process at a time when colleagues and collaborators have more availability has been very helpful.”
We are thrilled to share three important milestones, each of which brings us increasingly closer to launching the world’s largest, open-access, online library of Ladino texts, audio, and archival materials.
The first published metadata application profile for a Ladino library
In order for students, scholars, and members of the public to find the Ladino books in our collection, we have to create descriptive metadata. These are essentially categories or fields (also known as properties) that hold information about the books — their titles, authors, languages, the time and place in which they were published, and much more. We want you to be able to find every Ladino book from Izmir in our collection by searching for “Izmir,” for instance, which is only possible through the creation of robust metadata. The field titles and instructions for how to input specific data into these fields, among other particulars, are contained in a document known as a metadata application profile. Creating such a document will elevate the professionalism and legitimacy of our collection to that of other established digital libraries.
Portion of the Sephardic Studies Digital Collection metadata application profile. This snapshot captures the “printer” field, a new property created specifically for this collection.
As I have shared in a previous essay, current library standards are not always appropriate or sufficient for describing Ladino texts. Producing these books was a collaborative effort that sometimes involved as many as five distinct roles (author, translator, editor, publisher, printer), which are not easily contained in the singular, widely used metadata field of “creator.” The books themselves recognize all these creative contributions, but descriptive metadata in other digital Ladino libraries often obscures some of this critical information. Our effort to address these informational gaps resulted in the creation of fourteen new metadata categories unique to the world of Ladino book production, which contribute to the twenty-six total metadata categories for our collection.
Annotated title page for the Ladino Shevet Musar (ST00390, courtesy Richard Adatto). These annotations give a sense of the considerations involved in creating metadata for Ladino books.
“It’s been rare in my experience to collaborate with a collection owner who is so interested in and engaged with metadata,” said Riesenberg. “Collaboration with Sephardic Studies Program staff has been invaluable in planning for this collection. Their subject-area expertise and input will allow for descriptive work that serves the scholarly community by capturing unique characteristics of these resources.”
Translating the world of Ladino publishing into data fields involved numerous considerations; we even made certain sacrifices in order to adhere to universal library standards so that our collection could communicate with other digital Ladino libraries. Surprisingly, one of our most challenging questions involved determining how to capture provenance (a record of ownership for a given item) — a descriptive element which, we learned, is somewhat uncommon beyond archival collections, and is further complicated in our case due to the multiple hands through which a Ladino book may have passed before arriving to us.
Publicly acknowledging the community members who contributed these books to the Sephardic Studies Digital Collection was non-negotiable; it is only through this grassroots effort that our library came to fruition. There was also a functional benefit: when the library is live, all books will be able to be sorted by donor or lender (provenance). This kind of organization will illustrate the important pockets of preservation maintained throughout the Seattle Sephardic community, and how these scattered, personal collections are coalescing online.
When it is published at the end of this summer, our metadata application profile will be the first of its kind to specifically treat a repository of Ladino books. We hope this will offer a model not only for Judaica librarianship, but for any text collection that requires a departure from “traditional” library standards to improve the public’s understanding of the communities from which those collections originate.
High quality scans
While many digital Ladino book collections rely on black and white microfilm images created several decades ago, our library will continue to feature color images of all Ladino texts. This will offer a digital reading experience that most closely resembles viewing the physical book.